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Horning: The golden age of quarterbacks is upon us

  • 3 min to read
Saints Panthers Football

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks on prior to an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.

Did you know Drew Brees went to Purdue?

I do, because during his Boilermaker days I remained young enough to inhale sports pretty much the way I did as a kid and the last time Purdue football was a thing, Brees was the man.

How about this?

Do you know he spent five seasons in San Diego?

I could have sworn it was one or two, after which the locker room wasn’t big enough for both him and Phillip Rivers.

If you can believe it, Brees backed up Doug Flutie in 2001. Then he started two seasons, after which Rivers arrived. Then he started two more.

He became a free agent after the 2005 season and San Diego bid to keep him, but maybe not seriously. Brees suffered a shoulder injury the final game of the season, Rivers was waiting in the wings, what were the Chargers to do?

It’s not easy making a quarterback you suspect will be great ride the pine. Just ask Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who insisted upon saying goodbye to Brett Favre even after Favre decided he wouldn’t be retiring before the 2008 season after all.

So the Chargers went with Rivers, Brees signed with New Orleans and … all these years later, still a Saint, Brees has thrown for more yards than any quarterback in NFL history; Rivers, a Charger until becoming a Colt this season, has thrown for the fifth most all time; Rodgers is 11th on the list and just about everybody will tell you none of them are their generation’s best quarterback, because that quarterback is Tom Brady because Super Bowls are the be-all, end-all of quarterbacking, even if they’re not.

All of which is a long way of saying the golden age of NFL quarterbacks is right now.

It’s crazy.

Like American men’s tennis in the ’80s and heavyweight boxing in the ’70s, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

If you’re my age, you might think the golden age belonged to your childhood giants, Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton and Bob Griese, but this side of Dan Fouts nobody from that generation was asked to make the difference for his team the way the current crop has been asked to make it for theirs.

Or you might think the next group is the group, one that includes Troy Aikman and John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Warren Moon, Steve Young and Favre, Hall of Famers all.

Maybe there’s a case Aikman’s nowhere without Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and Montana’s nowhere without Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh, but that’s still eight Hall of Famers and eight is a lot.

But do you know how many of those eight rank among the top 25 all-time passers in the game?

Five, but just one in the top five (Favre, No. 4) and two more in the top 10 (Marino, No. 6; Elway, No. 10).

Moon, who is 12th, would be much higher he not had to go to Canada to prove a Black man could play quarterback. He won five Grey Cups in six years before playing 17 NFL seasons, starting all but the last two. My goodness was Moon great, yet his group is not the greatest.

Montana, by the way, is 21st on the all-time passing list.


Brees stands alone, having thrown for 80,358 yards. Brady’s No. 2 at 79,204, Rivers No. 5 at 63,440, Roethlisberger No. 7 at 60,348.

There will be arguments against Rivers reaching the Hall, but there shouldn’t be, so that’s four currents on their way to Canton and they might not be the half of it.

Rogers, as mentioned, is 11th on the all-time list — 51,245 yards — and he’s been in the league four less seasons than Brees with six fewer seasons of wear and tear, having been understudy to Favre for three.

Matt Ryan — Matt Ryan!!! — may one day lead the list. He’s ninth, could have years left having hit the league in 2008 and will have a hard time not reaching the Hall given his numbers.

All that and do you really think Patrick Mahomes doesn’t have a Hall of Fame career in front of him, or that Russell Wilso’s not a good deal along the path already?

I’m not sure what to make of “passer rating” as an NFL stat, but eight of the top 10 career guys in the category are current, five of whom we’ve mentioned and three we haven’t.

We’ve mentioned Mahomes (first), Rodgers (third), Wilson (fourth), Brees (fifth) and Brady (seventh). We’ve not mentioned Deshaun Watson (second), Kirk Cousins (sixth) and Dak Prescott (tied for seventh). Nor have we mentioned Lamar Jackson, who was MVP of the whole dang league last season.


I’ll tell you John Elway’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen because if he had a minute to beat you, he would.

I was never sure Joe Montana was best-ever material the same way I’m not sure Tom Brady is, because Super Bowls shouldn’t be everything and both enjoyed coaching and organizations way ahead of the rest of the league.

But they’re among the best to have ever played, at least, and whether you like guys like Brees and Rodgers, who have pulled their teams forward, or guys like Montana and Brady, who haven’t had to, there’s more great ones right now than we’ve ever seen.

There are more, still.

It’s not like Buffalo isn’t swooning over Josh Allen, nor Tennessee over Ryan Tannehill, nor Cleveland over Baker Mayfield, because they are.

The playoffs begin Saturday.

It’s a golden age.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

Clay Horning

405 366-3526

Follow me @clayhorning

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